A last-minute alliance has shifted the pre-election scene to open the possibility of the first-ever victory of a left-wing party. In the middle of an increasingly violent campaign season, President Juan Orlando Hernández’s latest move was to reignite a decades-long territorial dispute with El Salvador.
HAVANA TIMES – On October 13, Honduran presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla announced that he was ending his presidential bid to support Xiomara Castro, former first lady and candidate for left-wing Libre Party, created and led by her husband Manuel “Mel” Zelaya. In return, Castro will pick Nasralla as her vice president if she wins.
The political alliance was negotiated in recent weeks and is surprising because Nasralla, who was close to defeating Hernandez in the 2017 elections, has based his political career on denouncing the corruption of previous governments, including Zelaya’s. Even so, it brings together two of the top four candidates in elections on November 28, and increases the chances of defeating the ruling National Party.
According to a September poll by CID Gallup, 21 percent of voters said they planned to vote for Nasry “Tito” Asfura, Tegucigalpa mayor and presidential candidate for President Hernandez’ National Party. Asfura is being investigated by a government anti-corruption unit for embezzlement of $1 million in public funds. The international investigation Pandora Papers revealed last week that he was the majority shareholder of multiple offshore accounts.
Castro was polling at 18 percent, neck-and-neck with Nasralla, a former TV show host. In the Honduran election system, there’s no run-off election and the candidate with the most votes — even if less than 50 percent — wins the presidency.
“If we don’t come together today, the country will lose. Together, nobody can beat us,” Nasralla said in a press conference.
Castro’s campaign promises include switching diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China and loosening the country’s abortion ban.
If Xiomara Castro wins, it would end 12 years of National Party rule since her husband Mel Zelaya was ousted in a 2009 coup. President Juan Orlando Hernández has been implicated in drug trafficking in a case in New York that convicted his brother, raising questions about his future once he leaves office.
In the same trial, a witness also accused Zelaya of receiving bribes from drug traffickers in 2006. Zelaya was president of Honduras from 2006 to 2009 and was removed by the military, supported by an alliance of conservative parties, in June 2009, when he promoted a referendum to pave the way for possible reelection. Despite international pressure that tried to reverse the coup, it was legitimized by controversial elections five months later.
Picking a Fight during Election Season
On Tuesday, President Hernandez made a controversial announcement for a development plan in the Gulf of Fonseca, which borders Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.
The area has been the focus of a territorial dispute for decades. A 1992 decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) determined that the three countries must share control of the area. One island in particular, Isla Conejo, remains in dispute between El Salvador and Honduras, and the court did not specify which country owns the island.
“Isla Conejo is Honduran,” Hernández said Tuesday, reactivating a long dormant debate. “As a nation we have historically exercised and we will always exercise national sovereignty.”
“The territory is sacred and we should defend it with our own lives,” he added.
Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele responded with a meme on Twitter telling Hernández to calm down and have a Snickers bar.
Salvadoran legislators pointed out that there could be other motivations behind the announcement, both in El Salvador and Honduras. “It is an excellent smokescreen for the president [Bukele] to hide the national problems, and an excellent campaign for some parties in Honduras,” said René Portillo Cuadra, Salvadoran legislator for the opposition party Arena.
“It’s important to wait to see what else happens there. We don’t want to enter into a conflict because of the political and economic situation that the country is living in,” said Claudia Ortiz of Vamos. “It would be a distraction from important problems. Of course, the territory is important, but where is the real threat?”
Salvador Nasralla, now a vice presidential candidate, identified another potential motivation behind the announcement: because of its location between three countries, the Gulf of Fonseca has become an important trafficking route.
“They don’t do anything thinking of Honduras,” Nasralla tweeted in a veiled accusation against Hernández. “Everything is for the personal interests of organized crime.”
The territorial dispute and the new political alliance come at a time of increased political violence. In recent months, more than 20 people linked to politics have been killed in pre-electoral violence in Honduras, according to Honduran human rights group Committee for Relatives of Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH).
On Friday, October 8, mayoral candidate for the Libre party in the southern Honduran department of Choluteca, Nery Fernando Reyes, was killed, reports independent Honduran media outlet ContraCorriente. The same night, Libre’s congresswoman Olivia Zúniga Cáceres, daughter of murdered environmentalist Berta Cáceres, was attacked by four men who broke into her home and tried to strangle her.
Zúniga Cáceres’ husband was arrested in connection to the attack, which occurred despite protective measures from the State that included having a police escort at all times.
“How is it possible for someone under the protection of the State to suffer this kind of attack?” Libre party secretary Gerardo Torres told ContraCorriente. “It serves as an alert so that the international community sees that the protective measures are a show of the Honduran State rather than something real, because the State doesn’t investigate, protect, or guarantee safety, protection and the life of social activists.”
Torres and others close to Zúniga Cáceres also criticized media that portrayed the attack as a family matter or a “crime of passion.” The same narrative emerged shortly after the murder of her mother, Berta Caceres.
Criminalization of Protest
As elections near, a change to Honduras’ penal code could become a mechanism to repress protests and dissent. Protests can now be considered a form of “usurpation” of public spaces.
The last presidential elections four years ago led to mass protests against what many international observers deemed fraud in favor of Hernández. Thousands took to the streets and more than 30 people were killed. COFADEH reported that 21 of these victims were killed by military police.
Now, protesters could face criminalization if there is another electoral crisis that sends Hondurans to the streets in protest.
“The changes related to the crime of usurpation, increasing its sentence, extending it to public spaces, and facilitating displacement opens the possibility of applying the new provisions not only to campesino organizations, but also people exercising their right to meeting, expression, and peaceful protest,” said the Honduran Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.